The Calamitous 21st Century

tuchman

W.J. Astore

We’re only sixteen years into the 21st century, but it seems like a “best of times, worst of times” kind of epoch.  It’s the best of times for the aristocracy of the rich, and the worst of times for the poor and disadvantaged, especially when they live close to or in war zones.

Perhaps that’s a statement of the obvious, except the gap between the richest and poorest continues to grow.  Their worlds, their realities, are so different as to be virtually disconnected.  This is a theme of several recent science fiction films, including the “Hunger Games” series (the Capitol versus the Districts) and “Elysium,” in which the privileged rich literally live above the sordid earth with its teeming masses.

Some of the big fears of our present century include the emergence of a “super bug,” a contagion that is highly resistant to traditional drugs.  We’ve overused antibiotics and are slowly breeding new strains of bacteria that modern medicine can no longer defeat.  Meanwhile, many people in the U.S. still lack health care, or they’re reluctant to use it because it’s too expensive for them.  And then there are the workers who lack sick leave.  They force themselves to go to work, even when sick, because they need the money.  How long before inadequate health care and sick workers facilitate the conditions for the spread of a plague?

And then there’s the contagion of violence and war.  America’s wars in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Africa are basically open-ended.  They are today’s version of the “Hundred Years’ War” between England and France, an on-again, off-again struggle for dominance that sprawled across two centuries.  In fact, America’s “war on terror,” with its “surgical strikes” and reliance on technology as a quasi-panacea, seems to be breeding new types of “super-bug” terrorists who are highly resistant to traditional techniques of policing and war.

In this effort, one thing is certain: No U.S. president will be declaring “peace” or even “normal” times for the next decade or two (or three).

Finally, let’s not forget global warming.  The Pentagon and the CIA haven’t.  Republicans may have their share of climate change deniers, but when it comes to the U.S. national security state, contingency plans are already in place for the disasters awaiting us from global warming.  Competition for scarce resources (potable water especially, but food and fuel as well) combined with more intense storms, widespread flooding, and much warmer temperatures, will generate or aggravate wars, famines, and plagues.

Are we living in a failed or failing world?

In “A Distant Mirror,” the historian Barbara Tuchman wrote about the calamitous 14th century of plagues and wars and a mini-ice age in the northern hemisphere. We seem to be facing a calamitous 21st century of plagues and wars and a mini-hothouse age.  It’s a grim prospect.

The question is: Can we act collectively to avert or avoid the worst of these calamities?  Or are we fated to dance our very own 21st-century danse macabre?

A Contrary Perspective on the Middle East

IMG_0230

W.J. Astore

How about a contrary perspective on the Middle East, courtesy of my old globe?  It dates from the early 1920s, just after World War I but before Russia became the Soviet Union.  Taking a close look at the Middle East (a geographic term that I use loosely), you’ll notice more than a few differences from today’s maps and globes:

  1. Iraq and Syria don’t exist.  Neither does Israel.  Today’s Iran is yesterday’s Persia, of course.
  2. Instead of Iraq and Syria, we have Mesopotamia, a name that resonates history, part of the Fertile Crescent that encompassed the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers as well as the Nile in Egypt.  Six thousand years ago, the cradle of human civilization, and now more often the scene of devastation caused mainly by endless war.
  3. Ah, Kurdistan!  The Kurds today in northern Iraq and southern Turkey would love to have their own homeland.  Naturally, the Arabs and Turks, along with the Persians, feel differently.
  4. Look closely and you’ll see “Br. Mand.” and “Fr. Mand.”  With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire (roughly a larger version of modern-day Turkey) at the end of World War I, the British gained a mandate over Palestine and Mesopotamia and the French gained one over territory that would become Lebanon and Syria.  The British made conflicting promises to Jews and Arabs over who would control Palestine while scheming to protect their own control over the Suez Canal.  A large portion of Palestine, of course, was given to Jews after the Holocaust of World War II, marking the creation of Israel and setting off several Arab-Israeli Wars(1948-73) and the ongoing low-level war between Israel and the Palestinians, most bitterly over the status of the “Occupied Territories”: land captured by the Israelis during these wars, i.e. the West Bank (of the Jordan River) and the Gaza Strip (both not labeled on my outdated globe).
  5. Improvisation marked the creation of states such as Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq.  Borders encapsulated diverse peoples with differing goals. Western powers like Britain and France cared little for tribal allegiances or Sunni/Shia sensitivities or political leanings, favoring autocratic rulers who could keep the diverse peoples who lived there in line.
  6. Historically powerful peoples with long memories border the Middle East.  The Turks and the Persians (Iranians), of course, with Russians hovering in the near distance.  They all remain players with conflicting goals in the latest civil war in Syria and the struggle against ISIS/ISIL.
  7. Three of the world’s “great” religions originated from a relatively tiny area of our globe: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  Talk about a fertile crescent!  Sadly, close proximity and shared roots did not foster tolerance: quite the reverse.
  8. Remember when Saudi Arabia was just Arabia?  Ah, those were the good old days, Lawrence.
  9. Nobody talks much about Jordan, an oasis of relative calm in the area (not shown on my old globe).  Lucky Jordan.
  10. The presence of Armenia in Turkey on my old globe raises all kinds of historical ghosts, to include the Armenian genocide of World War I. Today, Turkey continues to deny that the word “genocide” is appropriate to the mass death of Armenians during World War I.

My fellow Americans, one statement: The idea that America “must lead” in this area of the world speaks to our hubris and ignorance.  We are obviously not seen as impartial.  Our “leadership” is mainly expressed by violent military action.

But we just can’t help ourselves.  The idea of “global reach, global power” is too intoxicating.  We see the globe as ours to spin.  Ours to control.

Perhaps old globes can teach us the transitory nature of power.  After all, those British and French mandates are gone.  European powers, however grudgingly, learned to retrench.  (Of course, the British and French, together with the Germans, are now bombing and blasting old mandates in the name of combating terrorism.)

I wonder how a globe made in 2115 will depict this area of the world. Will it look like today’s globe, or more like my globe from c.1920, or something entirely different?  Will it show a new regional empire or more fragmentation?  An empire based on Islam or a shattered and blasted infertile crescent ravaged by war and an inhospitable climate driven by global warming?

Readers: I welcome your comments and predictions.

Future Headlines We Don’t Want to See (But Probably Will)

Difficult to see.  Always in motion the future.
Difficult to see. Always in motion the future.

W.J. Astore

History may not repeat itself, but it sure does echo – often loudly.  That’s the theme of Tom Engelhardt’s new article, “Tomorrow’s News Today: Writing History Before It Happens.”  Tom comes up with nine headlines that we’ve seen before, and that (sadly) we’re likely to see again — and again.  Here, shortened, are his nine “future” headlines:

  1. U.S. airstrike obliterates foreign wedding party.
  2. U.S. government surveillance is far more intrusive than previously reported.
  3. Patriotic whistleblower charged with espionage.
  4. Extremist groups exploit unrest caused by U.S. military strikes.
  5. Supposed U.S. ally snubs Presidential summit/meeting.
  6. Young American with Islamic sympathies caught planning terrorism in FBI sting operation.
  7. “Lone Wolf” homegrown terrorist kills innocents; says he was inspired by ISIS.
  8. Toddler kills mother in gun accident.
  9. President says U.S. is both exceptional and indispensable.

You can read all of Tom’s article here.   Perhaps the most sobering aspect of his article is how readily predictable (and repetitive) such headlines are.  Toddlers shooting parents and siblings?  Sadly predictable due to the proliferation of guns and lack of safety measures.  Whistleblowers charged with espionage?  The next Snowden or Manning should be ready to be so charged, even when (especially when) their motives are focused on informing ordinary Americans of what their government is up to.

Inspired by Tom’s article, I came up with seven grim “future” headlines of my own.  I challenge our readers to come up with a few as well.  Just add them to the “Comments” section below.

This is not simply a whimsical or cynical exercise: it’s a reminder of how narrow our country’s narrative appears to be, both now and in the immediate future.  Details change, a name here, a country there, but the headlines remain the same.  We need to act to change these headlines.

My seven “future” headlines

  1. U.S.-trained army [in Iraq, Afghanistan, whereverstan] collapses, abandoning heavy weapons and ammo stocks to rebel forces.
  2. Deep-sea oil drilling platform [in Gulf of Mexico, Arctic Circle, insert environmentally sensitive area] malfunctions, triggering major spill and environmental disaster.
  3. U.S. President starts new war without Congressional declaration of war.
  4. After declaring “mission accomplished” [in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, insert almost any Middle Eastern/African Country] and withdrawing U.S. troops, President [Bush, Obama, Bush/Clinton] orders troops to return as war is rekindled.
  5. U.S. loses huge weapons cache [in Iraq, Afghanistan, whereverstan]; sends more weapons as replacements.
  6. Lawbreaking major bank/corporation “too big to jail”; pays fine and admits no wrongdoing.
  7. Pentagon weapon system, 10 years behind schedule and $100 billion over budget, fully funded by Congress.

Always in motion the future, as Yoda said.  Let’s hope that a change for the better is not something that’s limited to “Star Wars” movies.

Cheney, Rumsfeld, and the End of History

Rumsfeld and Cheney
Rumsfeld and Cheney

W.J. Astore

Mark Danner has a probing article at TomDispatch.com on the career arc of Dick Cheney, the self-selected Vice President under George W. Bush.  Cheney’s approach to history, an attitude he shared with Karl Rove and Donald Rumsfeld, was the idea he could make his own reality, independent of history.  Previous precedents on waterboarding as torture?  They don’t matter.  The predictable civil war that resulted from our invasion of Iraq?  Doesn’t matter.  History is made by the big swinging dicks, no regrets, no apologies.

Even when the insurgency in Iraq was obvious to all, Cheney and Rumsfeld sought to deny that reality.  Recall that Cheney said in 2005 that the insurgency was in its last throes even as it was beginning to peak.  Recall that Rumsfeld said in July 2003 “I don’t do quagmires” even as he and the U.S. military were sinking into one in post-invasion Iraq.

History teaches humility, but Cheney and Rumsfeld were having none of that.  History is a sovereign remedy to hubris, but Cheney and Rumsfeld were all about hubris.  Faced with history’s uncertainty, as represented by favorite questions like “Yes, but” and “Are you sure,” Cheney and Rumsfeld hissed like vampires confronting garlic.

The end of history — in the sense of ignoring its lessons — came with Cheney and Rumsfeld.

And like Danner says in his article, we’re left today with the bloody mess these dicks created.

Do We Learn Anything from History?

Worthless?
Worthless?

W.J. Astore

As a historian, I like to think we learn valuable lessons from history.  Those who don’t learn from the mistakes of the past are condemned to repeat them, or so my students tell me, paraphrasing (often unknowingly) the words of George Santayana.

We applaud that saying as a truism, yet why do we persist in pursuing mistaken courses?  Why two costly and destructive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?  Why an energy policy that exploits dirty fossil fuels at the expense of the environment?  Why a foreign policy that is dominated by military interventionists in love with Special Forces and drones?

In part, I think, because our decision makers have no respect for the lessons of history.  They think the lessons don’t apply to them.  They think they can make history freely: that history is like a blank canvas for their creative (and destructive) impulses.  They figure they are in complete control.  Hubris, in other words.

Such hubris was captured in a notorious boast of the Bush Administration (in words later attributed to Karl Rove) that judicious study of the past was, well, antiquarian and passé.  Why?  Because men like Karl Rove would strut the historical stage to create an entirely new reality.  And the rest of us would be reduced to impotent watchers, our only role being to applaud the big swinging dicks at their climactic “mission accomplished” moments.  In Rove’s words:

“We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

Rove’s rejection of history stemmed from hubris.  For the character of Joaquin in Scott Anderson’s novel Triage, history is “The worst invention of man” for a very different reason.  History was to be reviled because it tries to make rational what is often irrational; history invents reasons for what is often unreasonable or beyond reason.

In Joaquin’s words:

“We invented history for the same reason we invented God, because the alternative is too terrible to imagine.  To accept that there is no reason for any of it, that we are only animals—special animals, maybe, but still animals—and there is no explaining the things we do, that happen to us—too awful, no?  … To hell with history.  If there is anything to be learned from any of it, it is only that civilization is fragile, that in war it takes nothing for a man—any man, fascist, communist, schoolteacher, peasant, it doesn’t matter—to become a beast.”

As a good Catholic, I was taught that wisdom begins with the fear of God.  A secular version might be that wisdom begins with the fear of history.  Our history.  Because it teaches us what we’re capable of.  We invent all sorts of seemingly reasonable excuses to kill one another.  We grow bored, so we kill.  In the words of Joaquin, we come to slaughter one another “because we wanted to see how blood ran, because it seemed an interesting thing to do.  We killed because we could.  That was the reason.”

The beginning of wisdom is not the fear of God.  It’s the fear of ourselves—the destruction that we as humans are capable of in the name of creating new realities.  The historical record provides a bible of sorts that records our harshness as well as our extraordinary capacity for self-deception.  Such knowledge is not to be reviled, nor should it be dismissed.

The more we dismiss history—the more we exalt ourselves as unconstrained creators of new realities—the more we pursue policies that are unwise—perhaps even murderously so.  If we learn nothing else from history, let us learn that.

Apache Scouts, Listening; Hollywood, Not Listening

Apache Scouts, Listening (National Gallery of Art)
Apache Scouts, Listening (National Gallery of Art)

W.J. Astore

Frederic Remington understood the color of night, and he also understood something of the uniqueness of the Native Americans he painted.  This lesson was brought home to me by David Heidler, a good friend and a leading historian of American history.  Visiting an exhibition of Remington’s nocturnes, Heidler had this to say about how these paintings moved him:

[Remington’s works] reminded [me] of something easily forgotten by the sanitized depictions of Indians inflicted on our own times.  Remington was able to portray them as obviously aboriginal while preserving their stoicism and majesty.  Hollywood Indians, whether in Kevin Costner’s wolf-waltzing epic or the Mohican picture featuring the terminally taciturn Daniel Day Lewis as foil for the grumpily taciturn Russell Means, are simply European ethnics festooned in feathers and possessed of nifty woodcraft.

Remington’s Indians, though, are people so alien that one instantly recognizes them as part of another world uneasily coming to terms with an encroaching one.  His “Apache Scouts, Listening” perfectly captures the odd division between the near-feral instincts of the scouts and the tentativeness of their army employers.  The several Apaches are in various postures, mainly ones of repose, but their necks are elongated, their broad faces frozen with concentration and all directed just beyond the viewer; the two army officers sit on horses in the background, their hands cupping their ears in an effort to hear that the Apaches obviously can detect with ease.  It is night and winter, and a full moon illuminates the scene with jarring clarity, the light ambient from the heavy snow on the ground.

I could still be standing there watching it if allowed to.

Few Hollywood movies that I’ve seen capture the distinctiveness and uniqueness of Native Americans on their terms.  Our movies are mitigated (or polluted) by the Western gaze, tending to portray Indians as either “savages” or mystical proto-environmentalists/Zen gurus.  We see what we want to see, not what is.

Back in the bad old days of John Wayne westerns, Indians were typically portrayed as savages who deserved to be extirpated or shunted on to reservations where they could be “civilized.”  Nowadays, the “magical” Indian is more common, a noble brave and guru to the White man who highlights the White man’s materialism, prejudice, and violence.

Although it’s not a perfect movie (it has its own political agenda), “Little Big Man” with Dustin Hoffman and Chief Dan George captures at least some of the distinctiveness of Indians, at least for me.  The decision to allow the Indians to speak fluently in English (when it’s meant to be Cheyenne) helps to bridge the gap of understanding (no Pidgin English as in old westerns, and no distracting subtitles as in the sanctimonious “Dances with Wolves”).

The depiction of Native Americans in LBM is neither universally positive nor negative.  The brutality of Indians is shown in the opening scene of carnage in the aftermath of an attack on White settlers.  The Cheyenne encampment is described in humorous terms (from my memory): “When first entering an Indian camp, one might be excused from thinking, I’ve seen the dump.  Where’s the camp?”  It’s an amusing reminder that standards of cleanliness for Plains Indians differed from White town folk.  The Cheyenne also eat boiled dog, which the narrator (Hoffman) describes as downright delicate in taste (I doubt that scene would survive Humane Society inspection today).

But for me the most harrowing scene is Chief Dan George’s masterful speech as he holds a scalp.  He explains how the Indians (the “human beings”) believe everything is alive but the White man believes everything is dead.  It captures the animism of the Indians and their connection to nature while highlighting the instrumentalism and ruthlessness of (some) Whites.

The gulf in understanding between our peoples only exacerbated the wars over turf.  And the Indians sensed, as Chief Dan George says in the movie, that they were on the losing side of the demographics (an endless supply of White men, but a limited number of Human Beings, notes Chief Dan George).

But watch “Little Big Man” for yourself and draw your own conclusions.  Even better, take a close look at Remington’s nocturnes.  Try to place yourself in the paintings as my friend David Heidler so powerfully did.  Such a vivid exercise in imaginative exploration — using Remington’s work as a time machine that transports you to a different world among a people who are far more diverse and complicated and alien than Hollywood has ever managed to capture — is both transfixing and transformative.  And fun!

Author’s note: I’d like to thank David Heidler for his permission to cite and share his personal (and moving) reaction to Remington.